Debate on Md. same-sex marriage bill set to begin

The House debate on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s same-sex marriage initiative is scheduled to begin Friday with testimony from the Democratic governor and a Republican lawmaker who is expected to introduce a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

The debate will take place in a joint-panel hearing of the House’s Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee and is once again expected to include emotionally charged exchanges.

“It’s probably going to be a very long day,” said HGO Committee Chairman Peter A. Hammen, Baltimore Democrat.

The House bill has 56 co-sponsors and is identical to one now in a Senate committee that has 20 co-sponsors.

Supporters hope to continue this week’s national momentum behind gay marriage, which included a federal court blocking California’s ban on gay marriage and Washington becoming the seventh state to pass legislation legalizing such unions.

In Maryland, gay marriage is expected to pass the Senate with relative ease. But the legislation will likely face a fierce fight in the House, where supporters entered the session saying they were about three votes shy of the necessary 71 for passage.

Senate leaders initially hoped to pass their version of the bill as quickly as possible, but they now appear content to debate their legislation concurrently with the House.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a public hearing last week on the bill but will likely hold off on voting until at least late next week, said committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh.

The committee passed last year’s bill in a 7-4 vote, but Mr. Frosh said he wants to wait to ensure the bill also has committee support in the House.

“We still have a lot of time,” said Mr. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat. “There are some folks who say we’ve been through the drill and had the debate, but why do it before you know what’s going to happen?”

Rumors swirled in both chambers Thursday that the joint, 45-member House panel could move quickly and vote on gay marriage as soon as Monday.

Mr. Hammen, however, said no timeline has been set, and several members said a vote that soon looks unlikely.

The Judiciary and HGO committees would have the option of voting as a single body or separately.

House Republicans and socially conservative Democrats are poised to block gay marriage for a second straight year.

Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican, is proposing the constitutional amendment and has 45 delegates co-sponsoring the legislation.

The proposed amendment would need three-fifths support from lawmakers — 85 votes in the House and 29 in the Senate. If passed, the bill would then be put to a 2012 referendum.

Mr. Dwyer acknowledged gathering the votes on the floor or even in committee will be a tall task, but he said he thinks the amendment deserves to be put before the public.

“This place is a place of miracles. Strange things happen,” he said. “All we’re doing by passing my bill is saying that the public gets a right to vote on it.”

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